11 February 2024

Middle East Crisis Netanyahu Asks Military for Plans to Evacuate Rafah, Where 1.4 Million Are Sheltering

Palestinians searching the debris from a strike in Rafah.Reuters

The rubble of a house in Deir al-Balah, in central Gaza, after an Israeli strike. On Thursday, President Biden sharply escalated his criticism of Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.Adel Hana/Associated Press

A funeral in Rafah for three children and the father of one of them. Gazan health authorities say the enclave's death toll has surpassed 27,000.Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Israeli soldiers in southern Israel. The military has proposed a significant increase in the length of compulsory service.Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

Protesters blocking a road in Tel Aviv during a rally calling for the release of hostages being held in Gaza, a key Israeli demand. 

Here’s what we know:

Israel’s prime minister asked the army to draw up plans to “evacuate the civilian population and topple the brigades” of Hamas in Rafah, the border city where displaced Gazans have sought shelter.

‘We’re Exhausted’: Gazan Voices Fears of Israeli Offensive on Rafah

0:45Roughly 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering in Rafah in southern Gaza, including many who have been displaced multiple times since the start of the war.CreditCredit...Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has ordered the Israeli military to come up with a plan for civilians sheltering in the southern city of Rafah to evacuate, his office said on Friday, as Israeli leaders have increasingly indicated they intend to ultimately send ground troops into the crowded city.

“Any forceful action in Rafah would require the evacuation of the civilian population from combat zones,” the prime minister’s office said, without saying what area those zones would cover or when such an operation would begin.

Roughly 1.4 million Palestinians are now sheltering in Rafah, according to the United Nations. Lying on the border with Egypt, the city is one of the last areas of the Gaza Strip in which Israeli ground troops have yet to deploy in force. Many of the people who have squeezed into the city have been displaced multiple times since the beginning of the war, and finding food, water and medicine has become a daily struggle.

But it is not clear where those people could go and Israeli officials have yet to provide any clear answers. Many displaced Gazans sheltering in Rafah have fled from towns and cities farther north in the enclave, devastated by war, where fighting continues and basic supplies are critically short, and Israel has said they cannot yet return.

Egypt has sealed the border and Cairo so far has shown no inclination to let large numbers of Palestinian refugees cross, in part because of fears they will never be allowed to return. Israeli officials have occasionally sought support for third countries to accept masses of Gazans since the beginning of the war, diplomats said.

The Biden administration warned on Thursday that it would not at this point support Israeli plans for a military operation in Rafah, and both a White House spokesman and the U.N. secretary general warned of catastrophe should Israeli ground troops deploy there.

“Given the circumstances and the conditions there that we see right now, we think a military operation at this time would be a disaster for those people,” a White House spokesman, John Kirby, told reporters.

The United Nations also voiced deep concern about an evacuation of Rafah. “We would not in any way support forced displacement, which goes against international law,” Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for Secretary General António Guterres, told reporters on Friday.

When asked where evacuees could go, Mr. Dujarric said, “That’s a very valid question.”

In a statement, the Israeli prime minister’s office said that it could not realize Israel’s aim of eliminating Hamas’s rule in Gaza while leaving intact what it said were four battalions of the group’s fighters in Rafah.

The military’s “combined plan” would have to both “evacuate the civilian population and topple the battalions,” it added.

Israeli leaders have made clear in recent days that they intend to extend the invasion of Gaza into Rafah, on the border with Egypt. On Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu said the Israeli security establishment was preparing to operate in the densely crowded area.

“Our soldiers are now in Khan Younis, Hamas’s main stronghold.” his office later wrote on social media. “They’ll soon go into Rafah, Hamas’s last bastion.”

The Palestinian Authority, which is based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, said the proposed Israeli advance was “a dangerous prelude to implementing Israel’s unacceptable policy that aims to expel the Palestinian people from their land.”

Ahlam Shmali, a 31-year-old resident of Rafah, has struggled to sleep since Mr. Netanyahu suggested the Israeli military could put boots on the ground there. She has wondered where she could flee alongside her husband and 14-year-old son — certainly not into Egypt, she said.

She said the situation in Rafah is already catastrophic: little food is available and prices are sky-high, so her family normally only manages to eat one meal a day. Lacking firewood, they burn old clothes and any paper they can find to cook their meals, she added.

“What would happen to us if there were tanks, clashes, an invasion and an army?” she asked.

Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, said a ground operation in Rafah carried risks for Israel if civilians were not effectively evacuated. That possibly could lead to high casualty counts and “enormous pressure on the border with Egypt” by Gazans fleeing the incursion. The international community might then significantly raise pressure for a cease-fire.

“We might reach the opposite of the intended result: you want to deal a final blow against Hamas in Rafah — but at a certain point, the world will tell you ‘no,’ and we end up on the losing end in every direction,” Mr. Eiland said in a phone interview.

Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting.

Aaron Boxerman and Iyad Abuheweila reporting from JerusalemShow more

Smoke billows during Israeli bombardment of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on Friday.Credit...Said Khatib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Israeli forces raided a hospital complex in southern Gaza on Friday and were searching inside the main building, the Palestine Red Crescent Society said, after weeks of intense ground fighting nearby that trapped patients and staff inside.

The group, which runs the hospital, Al-Amal, has in recent weeks described it as being under “complete siege” with tanks positioned around it and near-daily Israeli attacks. It said this week that more than 200 patients, staff members and rescue workers were inside the hospital.

The Israeli military said in a statement on Friday evening that soldiers were conducting an operation to oust Hamas fighters operating inside and around the hospital. It did not offer evidence to support that claim.

“Based on intelligence indicating Hamas is conducting terrorist activities within Al Amal Hospital in Khan Younis, a precise sweep and clear operation to locate terrorists and dismantle terrorist infrastructure in the vicinity has commenced,” the statement said. It added the soldiers “have been thoroughly instructed to prioritize the safety of civilians, patients, medical workers, and medical facilities during the operation.”

The United Nations has described dire conditions and intensifying urban fighting in Khan Younis, where the Israeli military says it is trying to kill or capture Hamas leaders it believes are hiding in and beneath the city in an extensive network of tunnels.

Nebal Farsakh, a spokeswoman for the Red Crescent agency, said Friday that the group was having difficulty communicating with its staff at the hospital, and that its teams had stopped responding after reporting via wireless radio that Israeli forces were inside. She said that normal communication with their staff had been cut off for about a month.

Last week, the agency said that Israeli forces had stormed the courtyard of the hospital and opened fire, hitting five vehicles, including ambulances, and that two of its staff members had been shot and killed by Israeli forces near the entrance on the day before. It has since issued regular reports of firing on the building.

The United Nations has said that heavy fighting around the hospital has jeopardized the safety of medical workers and patients.

The Red Crescent said Thursday that the lives of 80 patients were in danger because of a lack of oxygen supplies and an inability to perform surgeries. One patient had died because of a lack of oxygen, the statement added.

Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

Hiba Yazbek reporting from JerusalemShow more

The streets of Tel Aviv on Friday. Moody’s downgraded Israel’s credit rating, citing the continued risks of the war.Credit...Susana Vera/Reuters

Moody’s on Friday became the first major rating agency to downgrade Israel’s creditworthiness, citing the prolonged war with Hamas and the toll it is taking on the country’s finances.

Moody’s, one of three major rating agencies alongside S&P Global Ratings and Fitch, lowered Israel’s rating from A1 to A2. Credit ratings range from a low of D or C (for S&P and Moody’s scales) to AAA or Aaa for the most pristine borrowers. A rating of A2 is still a high rating, but Moody’s also noted that the outlook for the country was negative, dented by the social, political and economic risks arising from the conflict with Hamas.

The rating agency had put Israel on review after the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks, in which more than 1,200 people were killed, according to Israeli officials, and more than 250 taken hostage. Both S&P and Fitch also began to reassess Israel’s credit rating in November but have yet to take any action as a result.

In a statement announcing the decision, Moody’s said that it downgraded Israel because “the ongoing military conflict with Hamas, its aftermath and wider consequences materially raise political risk for Israel as well as weaken its executive and legislative institutions and its fiscal strength, for the foreseeable future.”

Moody’s said it expected Israel’s military spending to double 2022’s outlay by the end of this year. That means more debt to fund the increase in spending.

It is typical for rating agencies to reassess a country’s creditworthiness after a major event that is likely to affect its ability to repay its lenders. Credit ratings are required by many investors who buy the debt of companies and countries as an indicator of the likelihood that they will get back the money they lent out.

S&P, which has also been re-evaluating Israel’s credit rating since October, has planned an update to the country’s credit rating for May 10. The rating agency noted in a report in November that Israel’s diversified economy and strong tech sector should give its finances ballast during the war, though it warned that a further escalation of the conflict to regions outside Gaza could strongly affect its decision-making.

“We could lower the ratings on Israel if the conflict widens materially, increasing the security and geopolitical risks that Israel faces,” S&P’s analysts noted. “We could also lower the ratings in the next 12-24 months if the impact of the conflict on Israel’s economic growth, fiscal position and balance of payments proves more significant than we currently project.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in December.Credit...Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

A day after President Biden issued his sharpest public criticism yet of Israel’s four-month military offensive in Gaza, top Israeli officials were mum about his comments, while Egypt said they showed the United States’ “alignment” with efforts to reach a cease-fire.

Neither members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government nor opposition leaders immediately responded to Mr. Biden’s criticism at a White House news conference late Thursday, when he said that military operations in Gaza were “over the top,” that innocent people were suffering and dying, and that “it’s got to stop.”

The remarks dominated Israeli news channels and websites. “A firm stance,” read the headline atop the homepage of Kan, the public broadcaster. Channel 14, a conservative outlet, said on its website: “President Biden attacks Israel.”

N12, a leading private news website, ran the headline: “Biden sharply criticizes Israel.” The story opened with Mr. Biden telling reporters that he had been pushing for a sustained pause in the war — and noted that he momentarily confused the leaders of Egypt and Mexico, a slip-up that helped reignite debate over the 81-year-old president’s mental acuity.

A statement from the office of Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, did not mention the gaffe. It praised “the persistent joint efforts and close cooperation between Egypt and the United States of America with regard to achieving calm in the Gaza Strip, working toward reaching a cease-fire” and allowing more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Analysts said the initial silence from top Israeli officials suggested that they were trying to avoid another open conflict with the United States, even as relations between the Biden administration and Mr. Netanyahu appear increasingly fraught.

Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, said that while Israeli officials likely objected in private to the comments, they would be reluctant to further strain the relationship in public as long as the United States continues to support Israel with weapons and its veto power at the United Nations Security Council.

“The president made a remark which is very painful for us and problematic for us,” Mr. Oren said in an interview, “but if he continues to provide these two essential services, nothing should be done to jeopardize that.”

A spokesman for Mr. Netanyahu did not respond to a request for comment on Mr. Biden’s remarks.

A day before Mr. Biden spoke, his secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, met with Mr. Netanyahu in Jerusalem to push for a cease-fire. Afterward, instead of appearing side by side with Mr. Blinken at a news conference, as is customary, Mr. Netanyahu addressed reporters on his own. The Israeli prime minister signaled he would press on with the war and denounced as “ludicrous” a Hamas proposal that the Biden administration had hoped would be an opening for negotiations.

The Israeli leader’s comments appeared aimed at reassuring his right-wing allies, who have threatened to bolt from his government if he makes a deal with Hamas. An Israeli government minister suggested on Thursday that the government would eventually have to make a deal to pause fighting and secure the release the remaining Israeli hostages in Gaza.

The divisions between the United States and Israel have widened as the war enters its fifth month and the civilian death toll in Gaza grows. Since Oct. 7, when Hamas-led attacks killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials, Gazan health authorities say that Israel’s retaliatory military campaign has killed more than 27,000 people in the territory, most of them noncombatants.

“I’m pushing very hard now to deal with this hostage cease-fire,” President Biden said while meeting with the press on Thursday night at the White House.Credit...Pete Marovich for The New York Times

President Biden sharply escalated his criticism of Israel’s approach to the war against Hamas on Thursday, calling military operations in Gaza “over the top” and saying that the suffering of innocent people has “got to stop.”

Mr. Biden, who has strongly supported Israel’s right to retaliate for the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas that killed an estimated 1,200 people, exhibited growing impatience with the scale and duration of Israel’s response during a nighttime meeting with reporters at the White House.

“I’m of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza, in the Gaza Strip, has been over the top,” Mr. Biden said in response to questions at the end of the rowdy session, meant to address a special counsel report on his handling of classified documents. “I’ve been pushing really hard, really hard, to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza,” he added. “There are a lot of innocent people who are starving. There are a lot of innocent people who are in trouble and dying. And it’s got to stop.”

But even as he offered a sharp assessment of the latest events in the Middle East, he made the kind of mistake that his staff had hoped he would avoid, given questions about his age and memory, by confusing the presidents of Egypt and Mexico.

“I think that, as you know, initially the president of Mexico, Sisi, did not want to open up the gate to allow humanitarian material to get in,” he said, referring to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the president of Egypt, not Mexico. “I talked to him. I convinced him to open the gate. I talked to Bibi to open the gate on the Israeli side.”

Mr. Biden’s comments revealed his increasing frustration with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, known by his nickname Bibi, making public what has been clear in private for weeks. Mr. Biden has pressed the Israeli leader to take greater care to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza, where more than 27,000 people have been killed, according to health authorities in the strip run by Hamas, and to consider creation of a Palestinian state once the war is over.

Mr. Biden has come under enormous pressure from the progressive wing of his own party to rein in Mr. Netanyahu, with protesters now regularly disrupting the president’s events and calling him names like “Genocide Joe.” At the same time, Mr. Netanyahu, under fire for not preventing the Oct. 7 attack, has sought to hold onto his right-wing coalition by standing up against Mr. Biden’s entreaties for a so-called two-state solution.

Mr. Netanyahu in recent days seemed to rebuff Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s efforts to broker a deal through intermediaries with Hamas to secure the release of more than 100 hostages still held by Hamas in exchange for a lengthy pause in the fighting. Hamas had made “ludicrous demands” that if met would “only invite another massacre,” Mr. Netanyahu said on Wednesday shortly after meeting with Mr. Blinken.

In the four months since the Hamas attack, Mr. Biden has sought to walk a careful line, emphasizing his unstinting support for Israel and shared outrage over the killings of innocent Israelis while increasingly counseling restraint on Mr. Netanyahu. At one point, he complained about “indiscriminate” bombing by Israel, but broadly speaking he has moderated his views in public, leaving it at times to other members of his administration to speak more critically.

The president did not intend to address the situation on Thursday night and was leaving the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House after his statement on the special counsel report when a reporter’s question prompted him to return to the lectern.

A crowd waiting for food in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday. Mr. Biden said he was trying to get more aid to the Palestinians in Gaza.Credit...Hatem Ali/Associated Press

He cited his efforts to get more humanitarian aid into Gaza, where much of the population has been displaced and desperate for basic goods.

“I’m pushing very hard now to deal with this hostage cease-fire,” he said. “I’ve been working tirelessly in this deal,” he added, because it could “lead to a sustained pause in the fighting and the actions taking place in the Gaza Strip. Because I think if we can get the delay for that — the initial delay, I think that we would be able to extend that so that we can increase the prospect that this fighting in Gaza changes.”

He also said he believed that Hamas may have mounted its attack on Oct. 7 to disrupt American efforts to establish normal diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a project many believe would have transformed the region but could have undercut the urgency of the Palestinian cause.

“I have no proof what I’m about to say,” Mr. Biden said, “but it’s not unreasonable to suspect that Hamas understood what was about to take place and wanted to break it up before it happened.”

Victoria Kim contributed reporting from Seoul.

Peter Baker Reporting from WashingtonShow more

Gaza City on Thursday.Credit...Mohammed Saber/EPA, via Shutterstock

U.S. intelligence officials told members of Congress this week that Israel had degraded Hamas’s fighting capabilities but was not close to eliminating the group, the principal war aim of the Israeli government, American officials said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, speaking after a meeting with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, emphasized again on Wednesday that his goal was to destroy Hamas.

Those war aims are divisive in Israel, where parts of the Israeli public have criticized the government’s decision to prioritize the complete defeat of Hamas over securing the release of hostages.

Last month, retired Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, a former military chief of staff and a member of the war cabinet, criticized the Netanyahu government’s prosecution of the war, saying the government should negotiate a cease-fire to free hostages and rebuking Mr. Netanyahu’s call for “total victory.”

American officials have also raised doubts about whether the destruction or elimination of Hamas is a realistic objective, given it operates like a guerrilla force, hidden in a network of tunnels that are difficult to penetrate. Weakening the combat strength of the group may be a far more achievable goal, U.S. officials have said.

The United States is also pushing for Israel and Hamas to agree to a series of temporary cease-fires and an exchange of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners.

The closed-door intelligence briefing to members of Congress did not include a discussion of how many Hamas fighters may have been killed, nor did it contain refined estimates of civilian casualties. Gaza health officials estimate that more than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, most of them noncombatants who have died in airstrikes.

American intelligence officials have refrained from offering specific estimates of how many Hamas fighters have been killed, arguing that such estimates are neither accurate nor meaningful.

Mr. Netanyahu said last month that Israel had destroyed two-thirds of Hamas’s fighting regiments. American officials say privately that their estimates are lower, and perhaps only a third of Hamas fighters have been killed. Before the war, estimates of Hamas’s fighting strength ranged from 20,000 to 25,000.

But American officials also emphasize that the United States has learned in war after war that counting the number of enemies killed in an insurgency or counterterrorism operation is a fool’s game. Operations that kill militants often radicalize others, swelling the ranks of enemy organizations. And U.S. officials say death counts of fighters do not give an indication of whether a government has addressed the core issues driving the war.

Julian E. Barnes and Edward Wong reporting from WashingtonShow less

Palestinians mourning on Thursday at a hospital in Rafah, in southern Gaza, after identifying relatives killed overnight.Credit...Mahmud Hams/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Israeli forces bombarded the southern Gaza border city of Rafah with airstrikes, killing multiple civilians, Palestinian media reported on Thursday, a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said the military was preparing to advance on the area, which is crowded with people who have fled other parts of the Strip.

The strikes heightened fears among the more than a million Palestinians crowded into Rafah, which lies along a closed Egyptian border, as Israel’s army has repeatedly warned that it plans to push farther south in its ground invasion in Gaza in what it says is an attempt to defeat Hamas.

“I am hearing people saying Israel is planning to storm Rafah,” said Fathi Abu Snema, a 45-year-old father of five who has been sheltering in a United Nations-run school there for nearly four months. He worried that a military advance would bring “total destruction.”

“There is no place for the people to run to. Everyone from all other parts of Gaza ended up in Rafah. I don’t know where to go if they come here,” he added, referring to Israeli forces.

The Israeli military declined to answer questions about the strikes on Thursday, and they did not appear to signal the start of a major new ground offensive in Rafah.

Palestinian news media reported that two homes in Rafah were hit in deadly strikes overnight into Thursday. Gaza’s health ministry said that more than 100 people had been killed over the previous 24 hours. More than 27,000 people have been killed in Gaza during the four-month war, according to the ministry.

Many of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced multiple times in search of safety. In Rafah, many are sheltering in ramshackle tents that offer little protection from rain and cold. Airstrikes have continued to pound all parts of the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Netanyahu said late Wednesday that his government had directed the military to prepare to advance into Rafah and two nearby camps, which he called “Hamas’s last remaining strongholds.” Hamas led the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that Israeli authorities say killed some 1,200 people.

Aid groups and the United Nations have repeatedly warned that an advance on Rafah would be devastating to civilians. Describing “destruction and death” in Gaza unparalleled during his tenure, the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, told the General Assembly on Wednesday that he was “especially alarmed” by the reports that Israel had set Rafah as a military target.

A military offensive there “would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences,” he said.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, an aid agency, warned that a full-scale Israeli military assault on Rafah and the surrounding area would lead to more civilian deaths and risk halting the trickle of humanitarian aid that is coming into the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

“An expansion of hostilities could turn Rafah into a zone of bloodshed and destruction that people won’t be able to escape,” Angelita Caredda, the aid group’s Middle East and North Africa regional director, said. “Conditions in Rafah are already dire.”

Early Thursday, a local Gazan journalist posted video on social media of two young brothers from Rafah who had been brought to a hospital after a bombardment. They appeared to have light injuries and were covered in dust.

In the video, which The New York Times could not immediately verify, one brother says: “I woke up and found that there was fire in the house. I told Mama, ‘Pick me up, I’m hurt,’ and she said, ‘I can’t pick you up.’”

The other boy says: “Smoke was filling the entire home. No one could see anyone else, no one could breathe.”

Abu Bakr Bashir contributed reporting.

Raja AbdulrahimShow more

“We think a military operation at this time would be a disaster” for the masses sheltering in Rafah, John Kirby, a White House spokesman, told reporters on Thursday.Credit...Pete Marovich for The New York Times

The Biden administration said on Thursday that it would not at this point support Israeli plans for a military operation in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza where more than half of the enclave’s total population has sought shelter, and both a White House spokesman and the U.N. secretary general warned of catastrophe should Israel attack.

“Given the circumstances and the conditions there that we see right now, we think a military operation at this time would be a disaster for those people,” a White House spokesman, John Kirby, told reporters.

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